Music as Theatre

July 25, 2012 § Leave a comment


Music  as Theatre.

(Indira Parthasarathy)

The sacred month of Margazhi, coinciding with December-January in the Gregorian calendar, brings forth a music explosion in Chennai, the metropolitan city of Tamilnadu,  for the last several decades and more. Hundreds of sabhas mushrooming in and around the southern part of the city offer thousands of concerts performed by  musicians, a few of them, past their prime and some, approaching that stage and many in their in their full-throated bloom.

In Tamilnadu, sacredness is synonymous with entertainment and no wonder, therefore, music, dance and religion integrate so well to provide us all entertainment of, what we believe, as aesthetic value.. When there is metaphorical ‘food’ for the ears and eyes, the stomach, which literally deserves it, cannot be left far behind. The entertainment package includes eateries run by renowned chefs, no less famous as the artistes themselves!

Richard Schechner, the most celebrated American theatre theorist of the contemporary era, after attending a Carnatic music concert (most probably, in the Music Academy) chose to describe it ‘in essence, it is a ritual and theater’. The hierarchical order in which the seats were arranged such as VVIPs, VIPs, patrons, committee members, season ticket holders etc, women shuffling around, decorated in conjeevaram  splendor(artistes and the audience alike) with glittering  jewelry to match, people trafficking in the auditorium even while the performance was on, festivities all over, with more chattering and less music audible,  all these could have given him the impression that the concert was a ‘ritual’, which, in his opinion, also defined theatre. He wrote, ’in Madras the audience attend music and dance concerts more to ‘participate’  than to’ listen’ and ‘watch’ which, what I consider as an intrinsic aspect of a vibrant, living theatre ‘

Of course, there is no generative link between ritual and theatre because they are different reflections of the same kind of human activity i.e.  ‘performance’. The activity is characterized by the combination of two elements, which, Schechner named as ‘ entertainment’ and ‘efficacy’, which in varying proportions create the continuum of all kinds of performances. The combination cannot be separated and even in the extremes of the continuum no single element exists in its purity i.e. there is no absolute entertainment or absolute efficacy. All the sahityas composed by the masters of the yester eras, sung in a classical Carnatic music concert by the contemporary musicians are not merely for entertainment but for efficacy as the foremost objective. When the element of entertainment outbalances efficacy, the result is ‘theatre’, which is, perhaps, what is happening in all our music concerts, if we stretch the theory of performance by Schechner.

What is ‘efficacy’ and what is ‘entertainment’? Schechner suggests the following elements: ‘entertainment is fun, only for those there,  emphasis on ‘now’, performer knows what she/he is doing, audience watches, audience appreciates, criticism flourishes, and individual creativity. For ‘efficacy’, results, link to an abstract other(divinity as in all the compositions of the Trinity), symbolic time, audience participates, collective creativity(performer and audience togetherness, as in a typical Carnatic music concert) which  is  in fact, pure theater’.

Schehner, while writing  about ‘selective listening; and ‘selective watching’ in the context of an all-night folk theatre in Tamilnadu(perhaps,’therukoothu’) said that the music concert he attended also featured these aspects and as such justified his claim that it was a ‘ritual’ and  as such a ‘theatrical event’.

What does he mean by ‘selective listening’ and ‘selective watching?’ In ‘Therukoothu’ shows, which are invariably all-night happenings from dusk to dawn in the rural areas of Tamilnadu, the villagers who come to see them , selectively watch ,choosing the time only when their favorite actors are on the stage, the reason being, as they already know the story (tales from Mahabharata or Ramayana) they only want to appreciate  their favorite actors’ performance on that particular night. Rest of the time they dine or sleep in the vast open ground, where these plays are staged, during the lean periods of agricultural production i.e. summer.

One can believe that Schechner might have had the same experience, when he attended the music concert in Chennai. Some of them, who came for the concert, constrained, as they were, by occupying a limited space in an auditorium, unlike the rural folks, watching a ‘therukoothu’  performance, who were blessed with the luxury of an open field to stretch and sleep, yet,  managed to have few winks, when the artiste sang that, perhaps, what led Schechner to conclude that they were not their favorite ragas ,thereby, equating them with the villagers, who kept awake only when their favorite actors were on the stage.

And Schechner also might have seen the ‘exodus’ during the ‘thani avarthanam’ session. This was, in essence, ‘selective listening’ for him, as they were not inclined to listen to ‘the beats of the drums’.

As what was the practice in a ritual, he might have thought that the sacred ‘prasads’  were being distributed, when he watched people making a bee-line towards the place, where the eats were aplenty.

A few years ago, Sangeet Natak Academy attempted a sort of reservation policy by funding  such of those regions, where there is no serious theatre worth mentioning and they chose, hold your breath, Tamilnadu! I am not sure whether this scheme has revolutionized the theatre scene in Tamilnadu, but my question is, if in the considered opinion of Richard Schechner, a Carnatic music concert is theatre in essence,, how can one say we lack serious theatre?

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